FeatureWorld CupSadie Bjornsen: Finding the Balance

Jason Albert Jason AlbertNovember 13, 2020
Sadie Maubet Bjornsen matches Astrid Jacobsen (NOR) up the climb in Oberstdorf, 2020. (Photo: NordicFocus)

The cyclic nature of the U.S. Ski Team can be described as a slow churn. The team, most often, invests considerable time and resources on developing promising skiers. Roster turnover, from year to year, is rare. Among those rarefied athletes we take for granted as nearly always being part of the elite of elite is Sadie Bjornsen. Originally from the Methow Valley and now a resident of Anchorage, Alaska where she trains with APU, the soon to be 31 year old mulled some major career moves this off-season. Her brother Erik officially retired last year from international competition. And the on-the-road life for U.S. World Cup skiers, the live out of a suitcase and hopscotch from venue to venue and hotel room to hotel room existence, became burdensome.

The backstory for Bjornsen is complex. For starters, she suffered an adverse reaction to the antibiotic Levaquine in high school. A side effect of Levaquine can be Achilles tendinopothy. Since that time, she has suffered foot related injuries. Off season training for Bjornsen entails a non-traditional look that often manifest with what we consider a traditional mark of excellence — top 10s and podiums. This, however, is not a retrospective article. There will be time for that in the future. We spoke with Bjornsen earlier this week as a basic pre-season check in.

Below is the interview with Bjornsen who has chosen not to race Period I on the World Cup. She has maintained her training, feels great, and secured a new job.

She’s pressed reset. That wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Bjornsen has known success and skiing and departing for the World Cup each November for years. This season will have a decidedly different look.

When I called, Bjornsen was finishing up a problem set for a statistics class as part of her MBA degree. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

***

FasterSkier: What are you up to at the moment?

Sadie Bjornsen: I haven’t been sleeping for like, basically six weeks now just because it’s totally got me hooked, all these problems. And when I can’t solve it, I stay up the whole night trying to figure it out. I’m in this MBA class. It’s modeling analysis using a statistical spreadsheet. It is by far the most difficult class I’ve ever taken, but I’m completely hooked. I’m like, I freaking hate this, but I love it at the same time.

FasterSkier: Do you have Noah Hoffman on speed dial to help you knock out some stats homework?

SB: You know who I do have on speed dial, I speed dial Scott Patterson. He’s my go to for help. We are analyzing things like different health insurance policies and electricity pricing strategies for hydro-power. Here I am trying to analyze electricity, but really, I don’t understand how electricity works in the first place. All things considered, it’s been fun.

FasterSkier: I’m going to shoot straight here. I’m coming into this relatively cold. I’ve not put feelers out to see what you’ve been up to or really been on social media at all for months. All I know is that I was told you weren’t racing Period I on the World Cup. 

SB: Yep. I love that. I can relate to that. I think that that’s been something that I have been inspired by a bit too this summer. I’ve taken on a lot of things in my life and as a result of my, my time to be present on social media is a lot less. Let me fill you in. Because the last time I talked to you I wasn’t really ready to be open about what I was doing, and honestly, I did not know.

FasterSkier: OK. I mean, should I mentally prepare for a heavy conversation?

SB: Hah. Nope. Just some real life decisions. The middle of last season was hard for me. I had an awesome period I on the World Cup. I had a super great Tour de Ski, and then I had a slump in the middle of the season.

I think a lot of it was simply that I wasn’t really happy. And in ski racing, I need to be happy. And I also recognized I was really out of balance. I was investing everything in skiing. I have gotten to a really high level like that, but that’s not really who I am. The process that got me good was always a very balanced version of myself — like going to school, doing a lot of things, and not just only focusing on skiing. Then as I started having more success, I felt like I needed to focus more and more.

Nowadays, if you want to make a living out of it at all, you have to invest all your time on things like finding sponsors and being present on social media, recovering well, and doing everything by the book. And I think that I just kind of lost a lot of my greatest strengths doing that.

I got caught in that rabbit hole of feeling like this is what I need to do to be the best. And last winter between the Tour de Ski and the Ski Tour 2020 I was in a slump. Then I started feeling okay and during the first day of the Ski Tour I got the stomach bug. I could not figure out how to get out of that. I just didn’t know and that really sucked. And then with the pandemic, the whole season came to an end.

So that was it. That’s a bummer because when you can end on a good note, generally, that’s always nice.

This spring, I realized I can’t keep doing it this way. I’m not happy, and it’s not sustainable. And I wouldn’t trade what I did for anything, because I reached a really high level, but, I have to think about this a little bit differently and like, find my balance again. And so I don’t know, I guess I explored the idea of quitting skiing.

I wasn’t sure if I was ready for that. And so then I just took the opportunity to have a little bit of silence — meaning no real commitments. I just gave myself time to try to figure out what I wanted. This summer has been so amazing in that respect, and since nobody knows what’s going on in the world it was easier to have no demands. I could work through this on my own without any pressure. I didn’t have to show up at camp in Bend on May 1 and know what I wanted from my skiing.

Sadie Maubet Bjornsen gives a final push across the line for a 9th place finish at the 2019 10-kilometer skate race in Davos, Switzerland. (Photo: NordicFocus)

FasterSkier: What were some of the changes you made to find that balance?

SB: One of the main changes was that I decided to try to get a job. A big stress of mine and something that contributes to a lot of my stress is I feel like I have all my eggs in one basket. And I don’t know what any of the other baskets in my life are.

I asked myself, what do I want to do? I have an accounting non-profit management undergrad degree. I knew there were a lot of really cool avenues to go with that. But this might sound silly, but when I went to go write a resume, I thought all I could list was babysitting.

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I just felt like I had nothing to write on my resume. I ended up calling one of the dads of a junior skier on our team — he has a CPA firm in town. I was thinking that since I have an accounting degree, I should go work in a CPA firm. That seemed like a good idea.

And so I called him up and asked if he would hire me? He asked if I wanted to be a CPA and I wasn’t sure. But I knew I should try to see if I like it. He agreed to take me on but he expected me to be up to date on taxes and auditing. I asked him to give me a month because we were fixing all the earthquake damage to our house this spring. Our house was torn to pieces, and we were doing tons of work. So I took that month to get situated.

I graduated from college in 2015, a full five years ago. I understood taxes and auditing, but five years ago. I took a month and studied hard. I decided I’m going to go back to school, I’m going to get a job. And I’m going to ski race.

I knew I could be good at that, that I would be able to focus. I decided I was going to divide my attention instead of putting it all in one place. I think it was this new found balance that helped me not stress about all the unknowns— like would we be racing or not.

So I got this job this summer, and it was awesome. My boss allowed me to start work at noon each day. That way I could get a quality morning session in. I then worked until five or so and could work out again in the afternoon. It worked out well.

I got really into it. I am so glad that I did that. What I learned is that while I am a specialist in one field, that would be skiing, I’m such a beginner in the other world. It was really good emotionally for me and for my personal development to go back to being like a minnow. Just simply knowing nothing and having to admit that I didn’t know anything.

In ski racing, you get to a level where you’re supposed to be the expert and you don’t ask questions. It’s just a different position when you’re supposedly the expert and then you go into a new environment and you have to be okay with asking questions and okay with not knowing and okay with asking similar questions maybe 10 times.

I would say the experience almost balanced me more in skiing at the same time, too. Because it is really like there is no such thing as an expert. You can always learn. I think that’s what I was falling into; thinking like, there is only one way to do it at the highest level. You know — commit your whole heart and being to it. And that’s not who I am.

I just need some balance to keep me happy.

FasterSkier: How long have you felt that the eggs in one basket approach might not be so healthy for you?

SB: Actually, for the majority of my career, I have had school. And I would say until the Olympics in 2018, that’s when I started putting all my focus into ski racing. So it’s only really been maybe two years that I haven’t been quite as balanced.

In 2018 there was enough distraction, like all the Olympic buzz and everything you have to do leading into the Olympics. I think I was able to keep myself busy and it didn’t leave a ton of time to think about perfecting everything.

But then the year after that, in 2019, I think that’s when things started being challenging. For me, I’ve always had injuries and so that provides a different challenge. Dealing with injuries diverts attention, makes me think about getting fit using non-traditional methods. So in that sense there’s kind of a little bit of balance. I would say that has been a savior in a way because it takes the pressure off of being perfect all the time. I’ve always had to find what works for me.

I would say the first eight years of my career I always had school going on, and it was always somewhat stressful. And I recall thinking this is borderline taking away from skiing, but I need it. I know now that it – the schooling – was contributing, not taking away.

That’s what I realized this summer. You know I’ve had this job. It’s been awesome. And then as soon as the end of the summer came, I started studying for the CPA exam, which is what I’m doing right now.

It has all been super intense and I’m going to school on top of that. I’m taking my first CPA exam in mid-December.

FasterSkier: Like I said, I’m coming into this conversation with no intel. So you are still planning to not racing Period I on the World Cup? I mean, recently, Period I has been kind to you in terms of results.

SB: That is the plan. I’m not racing Period I. I can imagine it’s gonna be really hard to not race Period I. But you know, like those feelings I had last summer or last winter were just like, I’m just burnt out on living in a hotel room every single day and just being around the same scene constantly and not being able to mentally recover.

I’m just teaching myself that there’s nothing wrong with doing a little bit less and focusing more. It’s not any different than the way I train: I routinely train with fewer hours than all my competitors. And because I’ve been injured, I’ve always had to do things differently. That doesn’t mean that I race any slower, it just means that I focus those hours, not better per se, but for me, it’s better.

Like it’d be better for me to do fewer hours and have them extremely focused than to try to do a ton of hours and not be as focused. So I guess I would say I’m chasing the same approach to winter racing, but just trying to find a little bit of sustainability with it.

And that means spending Christmas with my family, which I haven’t done for nine years. And experiencing a U.S. Christmas with my husband and my family and then going over to Europe and showing up a little bit later in the season with the same excitement that I always show up in Kuusamo, Finland at the start of the season with.

I think I race the beginning of the year really well because I’m so full of energy, and I love what I’m doing. And then I get burnt out on it. And I think that this will allow me to keep that high energy in the middle of the season for events like the World Championships.

My whole family is now back in the Methow Valley – my brother and his wife, and my sister’s family. That’s been difficult to not be there because my whole family is together, and especially during COVID when you’re not supposed to see anybody. It’d be nice to have my family around.

FasterSkier: That’s right, Erik and his wife, Marine, moved from Anchorage back to the Methow.

SB: I miss Erik and Marine a lot. And honestly, Erik and Marine are my favorite training partners. I used to workout with Marine every afternoon and, of course, Erik would kind of run laps around us, but it’s been really hard because they’re also the two people that make me believe in myself – more than any anybody else.

They both have been super encouraging about doing it my way, and just being confident about it and not having any shame. Because it’s like anything, when you do things differently, at first you’re ashamed because you think you’re doing less than the best.

I actually would love to just be a symbol of making people realize that there’s no one way to do it. And I think that Americans learn that more and more every year. We are constantly having these moments of, ‘wait a minute, we don’t have to do this just because we can do this’, we can constantly become more and more open to new ideas.

The coaches have been so awesome with me. They’re simply telling me you have got to figure out what works for you. And they’ve been supportive and Flora here in Anchorage has been incredibly supportive.

I also have been pretty injured this summer. So it also makes sense to start the season a little bit later.

FasterSkier: Your injuries are the usual issues with your feet?

SB: Yeah, it’s the same thing I usually have going on, it’s just been this foot and back combination. As a result, I spent a lot of July and August walking, which is not the end of the world. But that’s not the training you do to be a world-class skier. So I’m good at finding ways to make non-traditional training methods really useful. For example, when I say I walk, l am probably walking the speed that most people run, so I have gotten good at making things work.

That can also get frustrating. You just feel like you’re just biting yourself all the time and you’re just continuously injured, but at the same time, I am now constantly reminded it’s not the end of the world. In a time like this when COVID is going on, and people are losing their jobs and businesses and their lives, it gives you a lot of perspective. It really is not the end of the world.

And on top of that having all these other things I’m focusing on right now, it’s been like therapy for me. I don’t get as bummed out as I would have, like during the last two years when I have had everything invested. It’s like, OK, well, if this isn’t working, I’m going to dive into this crazy statistics question that’s going to keep me awake the entire night because other great things are going on. There are other ways to challenge myself.

FasterSkier: I’ll take a deep breath here. And considering the complexity of the world and your own life changes, this will sound superficial, but I’ll ask it – how is your fitness?

SB: From a fitness perspective, I will say it is crazy, but I feel fitter than I ever have. And I don’t know if “fit” is the right word, but I feel more open to going fast than I ever have. Because I just feel super balanced and excited every time I get an opportunity to go out and ski. It doesn’t feel like as much of a chore as it has in the last couple years. It feels like an opportunity. And so, I mean, in the event that I do get to race this season, which, who knows what’s going to happen, I look forward to showing myself what I’m capable of when it’s fun and balanced and it all fits in with my life rather than dictating my life.

FasterSkier: Good for you. You do sound like you are in a good place. So off to the Methow for Christmas? 

SB: I haven’t shared my plan a whole lot. But I do plan on going home somehow for Christmas. And then Joe, my husband, who is from France, he and I will move over to France at that point for the season. I plan to actually live with him in France and then just travel for the weekends of racing and live more like my European competitors.

FasterSkier: Yeah, so how is the French? Joe is from France as is Erik’s wife, Marine. 

SB: So I’ve also been really serious about learning French. But you could say, I’m still learning.

I’ve been in school the whole time. I haven’t had a whole lot of extra time minus these last few years, but the thing that people don’t always realize is trying to make a career out of ski racing takes so much time — just like trying to find sponsors and managing sponsors and managing all of the pieces that go into it. It’s a full-time job. And it hasn’t left me with a ton of mental energy left to challenge myself. I would say that you just live in a constant state of exhaustion in our sport. So it’s easy to just not find the time and find the extra ways to mentally challenge yourself.

And so that’s always been the thing: I’ve had other things going on, so I haven’t learned it. And on top of that, I spend a maximum of seven days a year in France, and Joe speaks perfect English. So honestly, I’ve never had the true motivation to do it until this year when I decided I want to go live in France in between ski races.

And I want to be present when in France. I want to know the other half of my husband. So I have been learning French this summer. And by no means am I fluent yet. But my goal is just to have a base good, enough to be able to participate over there. Because, I think as soon as you get immersed in it, then that’s when the learning really starts.

The plan is to over after Christmas and, of course, now France is shut down. So I’m not sure if that’s going to happen. Well, there’s a lot that we don’t know. But that’s the plan.

FasterSkier: You didn’t speak French with Marine during those training sessions?

SB: No, I think she’s kind of lost hope. And Erik and I, I’ve known all along that if one of us starts it, the other one will — Erik and I are both competitive. I know if Erik becomes more fluent, then that would be the thing that gets me going. And so at Christmas time, it’s my goal to interact with my family in French a little bit so that Erik cannot understand. And then Erik, I know it’ll start the engine in him. And so maybe we can both get our French going.

In bib 4- the U.S Ski Team’s Sadie Bjornsen is locked on during the women’s 2019 4 x 5 k relay in Ulricehamn, Sweden.( Photo: Fischer/Nordic Focus)
Jason Albert

Jason Albert

Jason lives in Bend, Ore., and can often be seen chasing his two boys around town. He’s a self-proclaimed audio geek. That all started back in the early 1990s when he convinced a naive public radio editor he should report a story from Alaska’s, Ruth Gorge. Now, Jason’s common companion is his field-recording gear.

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